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RIGHTS-PERU: Civil War Erased Even the Victims’ Names

Ángel Páez

SAN JOSÉ DE SECCE, Peru, Nov 20 2006 (IPS) - If they are lucky, they have a photograph to remember their dead family members, killed by Maoist guerrillas, soldiers, or members of paramilitary groups during Peru’s 1980-2000 civil war. There are also numerous common graves with the unidentified remains of victims.

But these traces are not sufficient to prove that the victims, many of whom lacked identity documents in the first place, died a violent death at the hands of the guerrillas, the army or paramilitary groups, which means it is impossible for their families to apply for the reparations provided for by law.

It’s as if many of the victims, largely indigenous people from Peru’s impoverished highlands region, never even existed.

The government of Alan García created a Reparations Council last month, which is putting together a list of victims and survivors entitled to compensation, a measure recommended by the 2003 report issued by the independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR), which studied the causes and effects of the two decades of political violence.

The district of Santillana, in the southern region of Ayacucho, where the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) launched its armed rebellion, was on the verge of disappearing from the map as a result of guerrilla attacks and brutal repression by the army and paramilitary groups, including the “rondas campesinas” or peasant “self-defence” groups.

But survivors in this remote area are worried that they will be left out of the government’s “integral reparations plan”, which is to provide indemnification to those who suffered during the armed conflict.

Nor have these rural Andean highlands villages seen any improvement in their living conditions. The poverty they live in is just as dire as it was in 1980, when Sendero Luminoso began to wage its war.

The CVR estimated that 10,661 people were murdered or “disappeared” in Ayacucho – 47 percent of all of the civilian victims of a conflict in which a total of 69,280 people were killed, among civilians, insurgents, soldiers and members of the rondas campesinas, according to the commission.

Of the more than 10,000 civilian victims in Ayacucho, the single largest group, 22 percent, lived in the province of Huanta, where Santillana – a district made up of dozens of indigenous villages at 3,000 to 4,000 metres above sea level – is located. More than 1,000 local residents were killed in Santillana alone, according to the CVR.

Anyone you ask in San José de Secce, the capital of the district of Santillana, has a relative who was killed in the conflict.

Nevertheless, the local civil registrar, César Méndez, one of the few government officials in this hard-to-reach village, explains that in his files there are only two death certificates of people killed in the armed conflict.

Sendero targeted not only local authorities, but any sign of the presence of the state, including the municipal and provincial governments, and the civil registers. Civil registrars were killed or fled their villages, and hundreds of books containing birth and death certificates were burned by the guerrillas.

“Local residents did not officially register the deaths of their family members, whether out of fear, because they could not afford it, or due to ignorance,” said Méndez. “But since the deaths of these people were not registered, it is as if they never existed. It’s like not having a birth certificate: there is no sign that they ever lived.”

To keep the books from ending up in a bonfire, the Santillana registrar hid them for years underground. By the time they were rescued, many had been destroyed by humidity.

“We have begun to reconstruct the books, but it’s a lengthy process,” said Méndez. “Many people have neither birth nor death certificates. Their families bring in their photos, but that’s not enough to prove that a person existed, under Peruvian law.”

Obtaining death certificates for family members killed during the civil war is a long, difficult process for local residents.

First of all, the paperwork must be filled out in Spanish – a tall order for the local campesinos (peasant farmers), most of whom speak only Quechua and have received little to no formal schooling.

Then there is the cost and time involved in a trip to the district capital, to obtain the application forms, for the campesinos from the roughly 50 isolated villages in Santillana, like Putis or Marcaraccay.

“The registrar in Aranhuay, one of the communities where Sendero and the army committed atrocities against the local population, carries out his work on a volunteer basis. He receives no salary. Besides, the National Register of Identification and Civil Status trained him in Spanish, although he is a Quechua-speaker, like the majority of the population in that community,” Raquel Reynoso, with the non-governmental SER Association, told IPS.

In Santillana, the SER Association has coordinated a programme of rebuilding the civil registers affected by the war, with funding from the international Oxfam agency.

Of the 193 civil registry books that existed in Ayacucho during the war, half have been partially or totally destroyed, said Reynoso. In San José de Secce and Aranhuay, where Reynoso worked on recuperating the documents, she found the remains of 867 birth certificates that had been partly or completely destroyed.

“We estimate the number of local residents affected by the destruction of the civil registers in Ayacucho at 45,000, which implies a challenge for the process of granting reparations to the victims and survivors,” she said.

Gerardo Fernández, from the village of Putis, which was virtually eliminated by the insurgents and soldiers, has begun to write down the names of victims in notebooks on his own initiative.

So far his list contains the names of 380 people who were killed or fell victim to forced disappearance. “There are still a lot of cases that I have to gather. How will the survivors receive reparations if these deaths aren’t even registered?” said the lean, brown-skinned man.

“The Senderistas murdered the local authorities, and after that they killed people who they said were collaborating with the military and the self-defence groups. And if they couldn’t find the people on their list, they killed their family members, whether children or adults, out of vengeance,” said Fernández. “Then the army came through with its own blacklist and killed those who were supposedly Senderistas or their supporters.”

Fernández himself is a survivor. The army took away his mother, Catalina Mendoza Quispe, 42, and her three-year-old son Raúl. They were never heard from again.

“It was Apr. 19, 1985. Captain ‘Bareta’ and Lieutenant ‘Lalo’ were responsible,” he said. But the army refuses to reveal which officers went by those aliases. (Officers involved in the counterinsurgency operations did not use their real names).

In 2001, Fernández informed the Ayacucho provincial authorities of the discovery of three common graves containing the remains of locals who were killed by the army. But nothing happened. In October he found two more graves in Putis, but the authorities have told him they do not have funds to carry out the exhumation.

“We don’t understand how they plan to pay reparations or indemnification if the clandestine graves have not even been investigated,” he said sadly. “They ask us for death certificates. But the bones are right there, for their identities to be verified.”

The remains are those of 117 residents of nine communities who in December 1984 were fleeing harassment from the Senderistas and were taken by the army to Putis.

After they arrived, the soldiers told them to dig ditches, supposedly to build housing. But what they were digging were their own graves. The campesinos were shot to death as suspected Senderistas.

“No one has taken out death certificates. In Putis, they killed entire families: the Condona Quispe, the Centeno Chávez, the Gamboa Ccente, the Madueño Curoi, and the Condoray Huallasco families. Who is going to stand up for them if they are all dead?” asked Fernández.

Sociologist Sofía Macher, a former member of the CVR and the chair of the new Reparations Council, acknowledged to IPS that the lack of death certificates will make the process of paying reparations difficult.

But she said she could provide no further information, as the council is still deciding what to do about the issue.

Fernández, meanwhile, continues to travel around the district, his thick notebooks under his arm, gathering new names to add to his lists.

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